Omid Safi, director of the Duke University Islamic Studies Center, is well aware that books abound on Muslims and politics. Works intended to explain or defend Muslim culture or the opposite, to deliver a polemic against the religion, are a publishing constant.

He wants to change the subject. In the midst of drumbeat of news and conflict, he brings a melodic note in Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition (Yale, June). It’s a collection of more than 200 poems by medieval authors that he has translated from the original Arabic and Persian "for anyone who aspires to be in a loving relationship with humanity and with God,” he told PW.

Safi focused on the works from the Sufi or mystic tradition of Islam, which he describes as “a way of moving in the world grounded in love, beauty and tenderness, not just a capital 'M' for Muslim."

It’s a different publishing direction for Safi, 47, the past chairman for the Study of Islam at the American Academy of Religion. His earlier books include Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oneworld, 2003); Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam (UNC, 2006); Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters (HarperOne, 2010) and Cambridge Companion to American Islam (with Juliane Hammer, Cambridge, 2013).

“I am mindful of the fact that when people think about Islam, the notion of a spiritual path [and] a radical idea of love, is not the first thing that comes to [their] mind," said Safi. "I just wanted to go with the good and trust the beautiful to say that love conquers hate and will have the triumph over darkness."

Among the selection of poems is one by Farid al-Din ‘Attar, author of the famous 13th-century allegory Manteq al-Tayr, The Conference of the Birds, who writes: “Judge not/ Hold your tongue/ Avoid fanaticism/ Make the path your only purpose.” The best-known of all the Sufi mystics, Rumi, the13th-century Persian poet, jurist, and scholar, points out in one verse, "The masters of law offer no lessons on love…. " And ‘Ayn al-Qozat Hamadini, a 12th-century philosopher, in a poem about “love supreme” assures readers, “The only obligation in religion is to arrive at God by any means necessary.”

Safi very intentionally chose “God,” not “Allah” in his translations. “'Allah' is the Arabic word for ‘God.’ It’s an English word and I’m transliterating into English here," he said. "If I had left it as ‘Allah,’ the danger is that people would mistakenly think we are speaking of some other ‘God’ – that God and Allah are not the same."

He’s not the only Muslim writer whose books expand understanding of Islam outside the context of inflammatory conflicts, Safi says. Examples he suggests include:

  • Essential Sufism, a “thoughtful, considerate and beautifully articulate” book edited by Robert Frager and James Fadiman (HarperOne, 1999).
  • Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World by Carl W. Ernst (UNC, 2004) "whose work does not pretend that any group is somehow perfect but never wavers with fact that everyone possesses full humanity."
  • The Lives of Muhammad (Harvard, 2014) by Kecia Ali, Boston University professor of religion, gender and ethnic studies who “looks at Islam and gender in a very insightful way with scholarship at a high level.”

Still, Safi has not forsaken contemporary concerns. On April 4, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Safi was among the speakers at an event at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King was murdered. He said, “I spoke about love as I experience it as a Muslim. But it is the same love I see Martin talked about – not merely an emotion but the unleashing of God. If you love people and experience that kind of love, you can’t help but be concerned when people are suffering, and you are moved to act."

It is this teaching, based on his faith, that led him to write Radical Love. "The speech and the book are not different enterprises for me," he said. "A book of a few hundred poems of light and redemption and illumination is its own witness that love is an absolutely legitimate and authentic Muslim path to God."